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Danny Devito

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Stampeding ostriches on a pecking mission are part of the next level in the game of Jumanji. Photo from SONY Pictures

By Heidi Sutton

Riding on the coattails of the 2017 box office hit Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, director Jake Kasdan has reassembled the original cast for an equally exciting sequel, Jumanji: The Next Level. Since opening mid-December, the action-packed film has dominated the box office, raking in over $700 million worldwide. 

Awkwafina joins the cast of Jumanji in The Next Level. Photo courtesy of SONY Pictures

Based on Chris Van Allsburg’s 1981 children’s book, “Jumanji,” the story first appeared on the big screen in 1995. Starring Robin Williams, it centered around a creepy board game that summoned forth dangerous jungle creatures each time the dice was thrown.

Kasdan’s successful 2017 reboot featured four high school students — Spencer (Alex Wolff), Bethany (Madison Iseman), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) and Martha (Morgan Turner) — who come across the video game version of Jumanji while serving detention together. 

When each teenager picks an alias to start the game, they are teleported to the world of Jumanji and become the actual avatars they had chosen. Spencer becomes archaeologist Dr. Xander “Smolder” Bravestone (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), Bethany is cartographer Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black), Fridge turns into zoologist Franklin “Mouse” Finbar (Kevin Hart) and Martha is transformed into martial arts expert Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan). 

With only three lifelines each, evident as black stripes on their wrist, the gang is tasked with a series of challenges in order to “win” the game. Only after successfully retrieving the Jaguar’s Eye from an evil villain, with a little help from avatar Jefferson “Seaplane” McDonough (Nick Jonas), aka Alex Vreeke (Colin Hanks) who had been stuck in the game for 20 years, do they earn safe passage home. 

In The Next Level, the four teenagers, now in college, make plans to meet up at a local cafe for Christmas break. 

Danny Glover and Danny DeVito join the cast of Jumanji in The Next Level.

When Spencer fails to show up for the reunion, his friends go to his house looking for him. To their dismay, they discover the infamous video game, broken but still functional, in the basement and realize their friend has gone back to Jumanji. They decide to go rescue him but things take a funny turn. While Fridge and Martha reenter the digital world, Bethany is bypassed by the game and Spencer’s Grandpa Eddie (Danny DeVito) and Eddie’s former best friend Milo (Danny Glover) are unwittingly sucked in as well.

In a hilarious body swapping twist, Danny DeVito’s character initially finds himself in the Rock’s muscular 6-foot 5-inch body while Danny Glover’s character is now a zoologist in Kevin Hart’s body. Martha once again takes the form of Ruby Roundhouse but Fridge is now Jack Black’s map reader. 

Bethany joins the group later on in a nonhuman form and Jonas’ Jefferson “Seaplane” McDonough also makes a reappearance. As the story unfolds, the cast switch avatars several times more by swimming in magic water, and we are introduced to a new character, a cat burgler named Ming Fleetfoot (rapper Awkwafina).

From left, Nick Jonas, Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Dwayne Johnson, Awkwafina and Kevin Hart star in the third installment of the Jumanji franchise.
Photo courtesy of SONY Pictures

As the game is now at the next level, the stakes have also been elevated. Jumanji is suffering from a massive drought. To leave the game, the group, in addition to finding Spencer, must recover the Falcon’s Heart — a magical necklace stolen by warlord Jurgen the Brutal — which can end the drought if brought before sunlight and uttering Jumanji. Like before, each avatar has three lifelines with the addition of new skills (Ruby Roundhouse is now a nunchuck expert) and weaknesses (Prof. Oberon can now add heat, sun and sand to his growing list). 

The special effects are top notch. In addition to an exciting rope bridge scene in the jungle with vicious mandrills, the game’s map has now expanded to include the desert and dunes where the avatars are chased by prehistoric-looking ostriches and to Jurgen’s castle on an icy mountaintop where they face perilous cliffs and an unfriendly host.

As far as laughs go, The Next Level just might outdo its predecessor. Blain’s character Fridge finds much to complain about being in his new avatar, Prof. Oberon, which he finds even worse than when he was stuck as “Mouse,” whose weaknesses include cake. “At least I was still black,” he groans. 

Hart and Johnson’s characters are even funnier as perennially confused grandpas stuck in younger bodies. Johnson’s Danny DeVito impersonation with a New Jersey accent has hilarious results, especially when attempting to “smolder,” while Hart is tasked with capturing Glover’s slower speech, and his avatar ends up revealing key facts of the game too slowly to be of any use.

The clever script, filled with action, adventure and lots of comedy coupled with an outstanding cast and terrific soundtrack, is a winning formula. The final scene hints at a “Jumanji 4” — can’t wait! Running time is two hours. 

Rated PG-13 for adventure action, suggestive content and some language, Jumanji: The Next Level is now playing in local theaters.

‘Dumbo’ is a live-action remake of the 1941 animated classic.

By Jeffrey Sanzel

In viewing Tim Burton’s “Dumbo” it is hard not to compare it to Disney’s animated feature that served as source and inspiration. The delicate and wonderful cartoon ran 65 minutes and was both enchanting and heartbreaking. Like all of Disney, there is delicacy about this 1941 film that has made it an enduring classic.

The story in both cases is that of the baby elephant, Jumbo Jr., a pachyderm born with giant ears. It is what makes him different that ultimately proves him special. These giant appendages give Jumbo Jr. — crowned Dumbo — the gift of flight. Ultimately, it is a tale of the “other” — a being ostracized for being different and then finding success, and, more importantly, joy in this distinction.

The original film ends with Dumbo’s rise to fame and his reuniting with his mother. Burton’s version extends the length and the plot to a bloated two hours. The film is stunning to watch with incredible CGI in the creation of the title character. Dumbo is a wholly realized creation with eyes that are mournfully soulful. The film (in 3-D) is visually satisfying but comes up short on character development. 

The story is set just after the end of World War I. Wounded soldier Holt (a brooding but sympathetic Colin Farrell) returns to a failing circus and to his children, Milly and Joe (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins, in nicely understated performances). He has lost his arm to the war and his wife to influenza. The circus is run by a roguish charlatan, Max Medici (Danny DeVito, doing what he does and does well), and is populated by the expected archetypes — the mermaid, the strongman, the snake charmer, etc. Instead of pursing this world and background lives, Burton opts for broad strokes and frenetic action.

It is the children, and, in particular the scientific Milly, who discover Dumbo’s gift. After the reveal of Dumbo’s talent, the film shifts with the arrival of a villainous entrepreneur V. A. Vandevere (scenery-chewing Michael Keaton with an impenetrable and unrecognizable accent). Vandevere fools Medici into signing away his company so that he can headline Dumbo in his Dreamland amusement park. Here, the world becomes even bleaker as it segues into a clumsy indictment of corporate greed. What ensues is often tense and dramatic, but there is a desolation that pervades, only lifted by the final images of freedom.

While there are plenty of homages to the original (the lullaby “Baby Mine,” the pink elephants are particularly clever and a mouse in a uniform harkens to the antecedent’s sidekick), the film has a very modern point of view, especially on the issue of caging animals. It is an important message and one that needs to be heard, but rings oddly false in its period setting. 

Finally, the question one must ask is, “Who is this film for?” The answer: It is a children’s film that is perhaps too dark for the children.

Rated PG, “Dumbo” is now playing in local theaters.

Photos courtesy of Walt Disney Studios